By Robert A. Rees
IT WOULD TAKE a calloused heart not to rejoice over the Church’s recent website, www.mormonsandgays.org. Jim Dabakis, head of Utah’s Democratic Party, was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying that producing the website “can’t have been easy” for the Church, but the messages by Church authorities (including those by three apostles) for greater compassion and understanding—for love—are clear and obvious. For example, the first statement on the website reads: “This complex matter touches on the things we care most about: our basic humanity, our relationship to family, our identity and potential as children of God, how we treat each other, and what it means to be disciples of Christ” (emphasis added).
This message did not require a change in doctrine or a new revelation. It didn’t result from recent scientific findings or new psychological/therapeutic insights. Rather, it came from the central teaching of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price: Love one another.
I am pleased with this message. I hope it will result in ecclesiastical leaders treating LGBT Mormons with more compassion, in LDS families and wards offering greater acceptance to their gay and lesbian members, in a reduction of depression and substance abuse among LDS gays and lesbians, and in fewer suicides.
However, as positive as I find this new direction, it is unfortunate that it has been so long in coming. During the past decades the Church’s attitude toward and treatment of gays has not been as enlightened as what one finds on this website. Those years cannot be easily dismissed or quickly forgotten.
Having said that, let me be specific about what I see as the positive elements of the new website.1
The most important message I found was in the title of one of the sections: “Love One Another—The Great Christian Imperative,” with its citation of John 13:34 (“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you . . .”). Speaking of this principle as an imperative is exactly the message that LDS families, Church leaders, and members need to hear—and hear often—so that it can be internalized and put into practice.
Another welcome change is the website’s use of socially and scientifically accepted terminology. For the past several decades there has been reluctance by some Church leaders, therapists, and spokespersons to use words such as homosexual, gay, and lesbian, perhaps out of fear that using such words would acknowledge that homosexual orientation and identity are real. Therefore, using such words on the website, and especially naming the website “mormonsandgays,” is a very positive step.
Perhaps the Church’s single most damaging teaching about homosexuality has been that one’s sexual orientation is chosen and changeable. The insistence on this understanding has caused incalculable distress, division, and even death. During the past few decades, tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints have tried to change their sexual orientation and identity, often laboring under promises from priesthood leaders and Family Service therapists that they could change if they were sufficiently righteous. Far more often than not, they would fail, leading to a downward spiral of self-blame, recrimination, alienation, and sometimes suicide. Therefore, it is refreshing to read on the new website statements such as: “No one fully knows the root causes of same-sex attraction”; “Attraction to those of the same sex, however, should not be viewed as a disease or illness”; and “One thing that’s always important is to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real, that they are authentic, that we don’t deny that someone feels a certain way.”
A related but no less damaging past teaching has been that heterosexual marriage could “cure” homosexuality. The new website offers a different position: “Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex.” (I hope for the omission of that “necessarily” in future versions of the website.)
I am also pleased to see that bi-sexual Latter-day Saints are included on the site. Although they are not so identified, the fact that some of the profiled individuals are presented as having successful opposite-sex emotional and physical intimacy with their heterosexual spouse is a clear indication that they are bi- rather than homosexual (i.e., they are likely not 5’s or 6’s on the Kinsey sexual orientation scale). Including such voices is important for the distinction it allows between bi- and homosexuals.
There is a diversity of voices on the website: leaders; parents, spouses, and children of LGBT Mormons; and gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual members themselves. These voices are honest, sincere, authentic, and revelatory.
I appreciate the admission, “There is much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God,” and “This official website does not offer a comprehensive explanation of everything related to same-sex attraction.” Such humility is refreshing.
These changes represent a significant new direction for the institutional Church in relation to its LGBT members and to their family members, leaders, and fellow-congregants. I hope that future versions of this website will be even more progressive. Toward that end, I offer a few ideas that could move matters forward.
Past Church publications have spoken pejoratively of scientific research into human sexuality—Elder Boyd K. Packer sometimes calling it “so-called scientific research.” But over the past several decades a significant body of reliable research on human sexuality has in fact developed, guiding mainstream health and mental health providers in their care of those with sexual-orientation and gender-identity issues. I hope that the Church will be more open to this research—including the compelling findings of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.2
It is unfortunate that the new website continues to use the term “same-sex attraction,” which is not a scientifically acceptable term as it focuses on sexual attraction rather than on the range of complex issues related to human intimacy. In other words, as with heterosexuality, homosexuality concerns the deep human need for personal, social, physical, and spiritual connectedness. Isolating the physical (romantic and erotic) aspect of homosexuality amounts to a reductio ad absurdum that reinforces some of the worst stereotypes and prejudices about LGBT individuals, including the suggestion that they don’t fall in love in the same way or have the same needs for intimacy as do heterosexuals.
While, as mentioned above, it is good to have a range of voices speaking about their personal experience, I worry that those watching or listening to these voices will generalize from them to their own experience or to the experiences of others. For example, parents watching and reading the stories of Ty and Danielle Mansfield might put pressure on their gay son or lesbian daughter to enter into a mixed-orientation marriage when the preponderance of evidence reveals the extreme high risk of such marriages.3
Finally, I see a tension on the website between the clear and insistent message of hope and the equally clear and insistent message that gay and lesbian Saints can never enter into an intimate relationship in this life. This message is so strongly emphasized that it seems to significantly diminish any hope that gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints can find deep interpersonal fulfillment while being active members of the Church. I imagine that, in a church that emphasizes marriage and family so much, the human need for connectedness must often produce existential despair in many gay and lesbian Mormons. From my observation, very few gay and lesbian members choose life-long celibacy, though many attempt such a lifestyle in their late teens and twenties. By and large, homosexual members end up living outside the Church and often experience a profound loss for doing so.
Were the message something like the following, it might leave such Saints with more hope: “We don’t know what our Heavenly Father might reveal on the subject of same-sex relations, but, given the fact that, as our ninth Article of Faith states, ‘We believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,’ we remain open to new understandings. Until such come, we will do everything in our power to make these Saints welcome in the Church.”
In the past, Church leaders have made strong declarative statements about marriage that were later reversed. For example, many top leaders stated, often and publicly, that plural marriage would never be rescinded by God. Others condemned miscegenation with equally fervent conviction, insisting that it would never be approved by God. And yet plural marriage was ended and inter-racial marriages are now fully accepted in the Church. In the face of such examples, one wonders why the pronouncements about same-sex marriage need to be so adamant and unyielding.
Finally, it would help heal many wounds if the new website included a frank admission, as with the Church’s recent statement on racism, that many past statements by Church authorities regarding homosexuality were wrong. It would be a balm to read acknowledgment that some past policies, practices, and teachings have caused much harm to individuals and families as well as to the Church itself. It is not difficult to locate these damaging statements; some of them can be found in articles, essays, and books that are still in print. The Church teaches us that we should acknowledge and take responsibility for our transgressions, mistakes, and errors. The Church itself would benefit from such a process as well.
I am truly grateful for the powerful messages of love and acceptance on mormonsandgays.org. In fact, I wish the following statement by Elder Quentin Cook could be framed and put on the wall of every Latter-day Saint home and in every bishop’s and stake president’s office:
I think the lesson that I learned from that [presiding over a stake where seventeen gay members died of AIDS] is that as a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate [than Latter-day Saints]. No family who has anybody who has a same-gender issue should exclude them from the family circle. They need to be part of the family circle. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender. I’m sorry, I feel very strongly about this as you can tell. I think it is a very important principle.
The real test of the new website will be its success in changing the attitudes and behaviors of Church leaders and members. Based on the challenge of changing the deeply embedded racism in the Church over the past forty years, my guess is that it will take some time before the positive messages of this website translate into significant change at the grassroots level. It is nevertheless a good beginning. Hopefully, the dawning of a brighter day.
1. Some of the material in this review is based on views expressed in the podcast at Dialogue.org in which Morris Thurston, William Bradshaw, Mitch Mayne, and I participated.
2. Caitlin Ryan and Robert A. Rees, Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children (San Francisco State University, 2012). Copies can be downloaded for free at http://familyproject.sfsu.edu.
3. I found several of the personal stories on the website insensitive. For example, was it necessary to show mixed-marriage couples interacting intimately with one another? I can’t help but imagine how a gay or lesbian saint deprived of such intimacy might react to seeing such interactions, which seemed extraneous to the primary message.